Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

THAILAND: In Wake of Crackdown, Anger Peaks against Foreign Media

BANGKOK, Jun 6 2010 (IPS) - Resentment here toward the foreign media had been simmering in the wake of the Thai government’s crackdown against protesters in May, but it nearly came to a boil when Thai panelists aired their frustrations recently about what they called western bias, misunderstandings of the Thai political culture and reporting that tried to fit events into a bad-versus-evil contest.

It may take a long time for emotions to subside and allow a sober look at how the international media reported on one of the most painful moments in the modern history of this South-east Asian country.

Meantime, anger against ‘foreign media’ in general continues, especially among those who have rallied around the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in the weeks during which the world saw scenes of street battles between soldiers and armed elements among the protesters, unidentified snipers, armoured personnel carriers ramming through barricades and buildings going up in flames.

After a week-long operation to disperse the protest by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), which had been camped in Rajprasong commercial district since early April as part their demands for a new national poll, 88 people had been killed and 1,885 injured.

In local media and in social networking sites, criticism of and anger over ‘biased reporting’ of the use of soldiers to crack down on the protests, especially by the U.S. Cable News Network (CNN) and British Broadcasting Corp (BBC), continues to simmer.

These came to fore – amid lusty cheers and jeers from listeners mostly sympathetic to the government – at a packed Jun. 2 discussion organised by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.

“The half-truths (in foreign media reports) are more damaging than outright lies!” said National Artist Sumet Jumsai, the country’s leading architectural conservationist and among the four panelists at the forum. “They (foreign journalists) come here and suddenly become experts,” he fumed. “It’s not really the truth per se but the perception of the truth that is working here.”

But several defended the foreign news reports by pointing to local media’s “own biases,” including patronising attitudes toward the protesters. Indeed, the UDD itself had scored the Thai mainstream media for having an allegedly anti-red shirt stance and for supposedly exercising self-censorship in favour of those in power.

The issue of understanding how media work – that foreign media are very diverse, cannot be lumped into one basket and that media freedom means having the space to make errors or different viewpoints – also came up.

“Freedom of expression is also about not protecting the opinions that are not politically correct and not protecting the opinions of the government,” said a Swedish embassy official. “Do you also believe that freedom of expression includes having the right to not actually be right?”

Still, “there are absolutely no excuses for coming out with one-sided biases (by foreign media). Everybody (out there) seems to believe this is a romantic, very peaceful, non-violent protest,” said ex-senator Kraisak Choonhavan, deputy chairman of the Democrat Party to which Abhisit belongs. He said many foreign media reports tended to side with the red shirts and portrayed the government as having used excessive force.

But, Kraisak told the more than 150 people at the forum, the foreign media had failed to report that UDD leaders, at the height of the protests, had uttered statements that incited violence and hate. “Not a single word from news organisations about these incidents,” he said. “How could you forget about these events?”

Particularly sore points of contention are the issue of legitimacy of the current government and how media report on the nature and core issues raised by the UDD, known as red shirts because of their protest colour.

In criticising western news networks as being “too sloppy in their reporting,” Pana Janjirov, chief operating officer of the English-language daily ‘The Nation’, cited a BBC report that said Abhisit “was not elected to his post.”

This relates to the core point of contention by the UDD, which had sought a new election because it said the 2008 parliamentary vote that put the Abhisit-led government into power was flawed and was the result of previous manoueuvres by the military and the elite to keep out from power elected politicians they did not favour.

UDD leaders had said this was because the Bangkok-based political elite did not want to allow a government supportive of the fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which is the UDD’s political patron, to sit in power. Twice in 2008, pro-Thaksin politicians who headed the government lost their posts through court decisions, leading to a rejigged composition of parliament and paving the way for the new vote for the current government.

In a document distributed at a briefing with foreign media in late May, the government listed the claim of the government’s being “unelected and lacks legitimacy, or came to power through dubious means” as among the “misperceptions” by foreign media. It said the 2008 parliamentary vote was constitutional and is “in fact, similar to the British system.”

Composer Somtow Sucharitkul, whose writings about the flaws of foreign media had gone viral in the Internet, said that the international media’s “biases” could be caused by many factors “apart from a reporter not doing a proper job.”

“Western civilisation has a natural tendency to see a story of an oppressed people battling an incredibly evil dictatorship,” commented Somtow, citing the fawning foreign media coverage of the Philippine ‘People Power’ uprising that toppled a dictatorship in 1986. “It’s a very compelling story and it is easy to fall in love with this drama.”

“They tend to see a mother story that every other story has to fit into and foreign reporters in Thailand are burdened by this handicap,” he said, adding that groups like CNN reported the UDD protest as an uprising against a ‘bad’ government. “They see slogans that they believe in and add two and two together.”

*The Asia Media Forum ( is a space for journalists to share insights on issues related to the media and their profession. It is coordinated by IPS Asia-Pacific.

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